Welches Residents Upset Over Water Quality
By Adrian Knowler
Some Salmon Valley Water Company customers are upset about brown water coming out of their faucets, with residents saying that iron contamination is ruining laundry and making water undrinkable. Welches residents say that the periods of contamination come without warning from the utility company, but the water company says that it alerts customers about routine iron flushing in advance.
“Chocolate water on Twinberry Loop!” wrote Peter Himes in a post published on social media platform Nextdoor alongside a photo of murky brown water in a toilet bowl. “No alert as to flushing lines or whatever they are doing.”
Other users said that loads of laundry had been ruined by the brown water, and that the contaminated water causes additional expense in the form of filtering and flushing costs.
Welches resident Maren Boehmer said she’s been dealing with the problem intermittently for over two years. Boehmer said she wasn’t getting answers from the utility, so she contacted the Oregon Public Utility Commission and Clackamas County Health Department.
The brown water is caused by periodic iron flushes on an old well in the Salmon Valley Water Company system, according to an email response to Boehmer by Public Utility Commission official Charla Wolf. “The old well on the system is high in iron and needs flushing when it is used,” reads the email. “Typically, Salmon Valley does not need to use that well, but this summer when the usage was so high, it was brought online for a period of time. In order to reduce the residual iron, the system must be aggressively flushed.”
In September, the utility increased water usage rates citing higher expenses, including those from the construction of a new well that would take the contaminated well offline and a facility that would filter iron and manganese. In an October 6 announcement to customers, Salmon Valley Water General Manager Michael Bowman said that the new Foxglove 7 well was the largest capital improvement in the company’s history. “Bringing the Foxglove 7 well onto the system allowed us to shut down an older water well that was responsible for iron in the system,” Bowman wrote.
On December 8, the water utility received multiple calls complaining of brown water, according to Wolf’s email to Boehmer, but Boehmer said that the utility was not performing a flush and didn’t know the cause of the contamination.
Boehmer is frustrated with what she calls a lack of communication by the utility. She says that the company does not pick up her phone calls, and that she doesn’t receive the well flushing alerts from the company. She said she’d like to know in advance when the utility flushes the old well. She estimates that her faucets discharge discolored water about twice a month. “We need to have a way to be alerted to not run laundry, so we can plan for it,” Boehmer said in an interview.
Boehmer also shared a reply she received from the Clackamas County Department of Health official, who wrote in an email that although the department has received multiple complaints from Salmon Valley Water Company customers about iron contamination, there is nothing the regulator can do.
“Iron is a secondary contaminant, and our rules do not regulate secondary contaminants,” reads the email from health department official Joel Ferguson in an email Boehmer shared to Nextdoor. “Salmon Valley Water Co. meets all Oregon Drinking Water Standards for regulated contaminants.”
Salmon Valley Water Company General Manager Michael Bowman said that most iron currently in the system is built up in pipes from years of pumping from the old well. He said the company is taking the necessary steps to reduce iron, and has flushed about 20 percent of the network’s connections to date. The old well, which was high in iron, was replaced in 2021 and now will serve as a backup, used only if needed. Bowman said overly aggressive flushing might cause additional problems for residents.
“The first step was changing the wells, the second step is to get to flushing. We are taking our time to get that done, our plan is to get that done by the end of March, depending on the weather,” Bowman said in an interview.
He said the December iron bloom was not due to flushing, and suspects it was because of unauthorized use of a fire hydrant in Welches. He said the company is partnering with the fire department to get locks on local hydrants.
Bowman also said that improving communications is a priority for Salmon Valley Water going forward. “There’s just three [employees], and [responsiveness] is an area that we are working to improve,” Bowman said. “We just started an automated ticket management system. We do take responsibility for slow returns.”
Bowman said that the company does alert residents about flushing 24 hours in advance through calls, emails, and texts and puts signs up in the streets as well. He said about two thirds of customers are set up for text and email notifications, and that if residents aren’t receiving messages they can get signed up by calling the company. “We are fully aware of the problem,” he said. “I would just love to have the iron issue be in the past. It’s just gonna take time to get that out of the system.”